In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Sabbatianism

  • Introduction
  • General Overviews
  • Background of the Sabbatian Movement
  • Sabbatai Tsevi
  • Anti-Sabbatian Polemics
  • Survival of Sabbatianism beyond the 18th Century
  • Sabbatianism in Literature

Jewish Studies Sabbatianism
Pawel Maciejko
  • LAST REVIEWED: 18 August 2021
  • LAST MODIFIED: 29 June 2015
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199840731-0023


Sabbatianism was a movement in Judaism spurred by the messianic pronouncements of the Ottoman Jew Sabbatai Tsevi (b. 1626–d. 1676). In contrast to earlier messianic upheavals, which had limited and localized character, Sabbatianism spread over all main Jewish communities in Europe, Asia, and North Africa and became a large public movement attracting thousands of followers and the careful attention of outside observers. Redemptive hopes associated with Tsevi were dashed in summer 1666, when the Ottoman authorities had him arrested. In September of that year he converted to Islam, thus putting an end to Sabbatianism as a public movement. The majority of Jews proclaimed Sabbatai a false messiah. However, a few of his believers interpreted the apostasy as a part of the messiah’s mission and founded sectarian groups recognizing the nominally Muslim leader as the true redeemer of Israel. One such group, later known as the Dönmeh, also converted to Islam. Others continued to operate within the framework of normative Judaism. Sectarian Sabbatianism elicited intense opposition of rabbinic authorities: a number of bans of excommunication were issued, and scores of polemical works were composed. It also developed highly original theological doctrines, in which traditional Jewish Kabbalistic motifs were reinterpreted in very novel ways and blended with Muslim and later also Christian elements. The last stage of the movement was the sect of Jacob Frank (Frankism), which was founded in the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth in the 1750s. Sabbatianism dwindled by the late 18th century, but it had significant impact on the most-important phenomena of 19th-century Judaism, such as the Haskalah.

General Overviews

Because there is no monograph of the entire Sabbatian movement from its inception in the mid-17th century until its waning in the late 18th century, the best introduction is provided by collections of papers written by the most-noted scholars of the phenomenon. Early academic scholarship on Sabbatianism was based almost solely on the polemical works of the opponents of the movement, treating it as an aberration and a force alien to Judaism. The first attempt to interpret Sabbatianism within the framework of its own theological concepts was made by Gershom Scholem in the programmatic essay Mitsṿah ha-ba’ah be-’averah (redemption through sin; see Scholem 1995). Scholem proposed treating the Sabbatian movement as a logical phase of the internal development of Jewish mysticism and a positive force in Jewish history. His essays on Sabbatianism were gathered in two collections, Scholem 1974 and Scholem 1991. Scholem’s findings have been supplemented by the research of Tishby, who devoted a great deal of attention to several subjects Scholem worked on only tangentially, such as the alleged Sabbatianism of Moses Hayyim Luzzatto (see Tishby 1964). A novel approach to Sabbatian theology, emphasizing the movement’s intrareligious elements, was proposed in Liebes 1995. The Polish scholar Jan Doktór attempted to discuss various Sabbatian doctrines of conversion, as in Doktór 1998. Rapoport-Albert 2011 is an attempt to reconstruct the role women played in the development of Sabbatianism. Most scholarship has concentrated upon the theological underpinnings of Sabbatian messianism; with exception of Barnai 2000, relatively little attention has been paid to the sociological, political, and economic aspects of the phenomenon.

  • Barnai, Jacob. Shabta’ut: Hebeṭim ḥevratiyim. Jerusalem: Merkaz Zalman Shazar, 2000.

    The only systematic attempt to analyze the social background of Sabbatianism. Instructive.

  • Doktór, Jan. Śladami Mesjasza-Apostaty: Żydowskie ruchy mesjańskie w XVII i XVIII wieku a problem konwersji. Monografie Fundacji na Rzecz Nauki Polskiej: Seria humanistyczna. Wrocław, Poland: FNP, 1998.

    A survey of Sabbatian doctrines of conversion, from Nathan of Gaza to Jacob Frank. Not free of misreading of Sabbatian texts, but makes interesting use of the previously unknown testimonies of Lutheran missionaries.

  • Liebes, Yehudah. Sod ha-emunah ha-Shabta’it: Kovets ma’amarim. Jerusalem: Byaliḳ, 1995.

    Based on close readings of Sabbatian Kabbalistic texts, Liebes challenged some of Gershom Scholem’s theses regarding Sabbatai Tsevi’s theology. Particularly interesting are interpretations pointing to the syncretic nature of Sabbatianism in Christian countries.

  • Rapoport-Albert, Ada. Women and the Messianic Heresy of Sabbatai Zevi: 1666–1816. Translated by Deborah Greniman. Littman Library of Jewish Civilization. Oxford and Portland, OR: Littman, 2011.

    An attempt to discuss systematically the role of female personalities and gender theology in Sabbatianism.

  • Scholem, Gershom. Meḥḳarim u-meḳorot le-toledot ha-Shabta’ut ṿe-gilguleha. Jerusalem: Byaliḳ, 1974.

    A collection encompassing Mitsṿah ha-ba’ah be-‘averah, two other important papers on Sabbatianism, and a number of edited and annotated Sabbatian sources, including several works by Abraham Miguel Cardoso.

  • Scholem, Gershom. Meḥḳere Shabta’ut. Edited by Yehudah Liebes. Kitve Gershom Shalom. Tel Aviv: ’Am ’oved, 1991.

    Another collection of Scholem’s papers previously published in periodicals. Yehudah Liebes, who brought the papers to publication in book form, also appended extensive footnotes. The collection covers the entire history of Sabbatianism and contains contributions to the understanding of its development in all its geographical centers (the Ottoman Empire, Italy, Ashkenazic countries).

  • Scholem, Gershom. “Redemption through Sin.” Translated by Hillel Halkin. In The Messianic Idea in Judaism and Other Essays on Jewish Spirituality. By Gershom Scholem, 78–141. New York: Schocken, 1995.

    An English translation of the essay that launched modern research on Sabbatianism; one of the most influential papers in modern Jewish studies. Discusses the “heretical Sabbatianism” that developed after Tsevi’s conversion to Islam, focusing on the antinomian aspects of the Sabbatian theology and ritual. Originally published in 1971.

  • Tishby, Isaiah. Netive emunah u-minut: Masot u-meḥḳarim be-sifrut ha-Kabalah ṿeha Shabta’ut. Sifriyat maḳor. Tel Aviv: Masadah, 1964.

    A collection of papers of Scholem’s student, particularly notable for its discussion of the alleged Sabbatianism of Moses Hayyim Luzzatto and of the anonymous Sabbatian work Hemdat Yamim.

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